Georgian, Russian Orthodox Churches Ponder South Ossetia

Representatives of the Georgian Orthodox Church were in Moscow this week for meetings with Russian Orthodox Church and Kremlin leaders on the future of breakaway region South Ossetia.

On Thursday, the delegation met for closed door talks with Patriarch Aleksy II of the Russian Orthodox Church. Following discussions, the leader of the Georgian church delegation, the head of the Georgian Patriarchate's Foreign Relations Department Metropolitan Gerasim told reporters that the churches had an important role to play in rebuilding diplomatic ties between the two countries.

"We have shown in Georgia and in Russia that the churches have not lost relations," he was quoted by the New York Times as saying. "We think the church should help in relations being restored little by little, because very many Georgians live in Russia and very many Russians live in Tbilisi. The diplomatic corps that used to exist no longer exists.

"Our citizens and yours have to get visas through the embassies of other countries. Why should this be the case when there are two Orthodox countries that have had good fraternal relations for very many centuries?"

The Georgian delegation met on Friday with the Russian deputy foreign minister, Grigory Karasin. The meeting, organized by the Russian Orthodox Church, represented the first official contact between Georgia and Russia since the two countries went to war with each other in August over control of the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

A member of the Orthodox Church delegation, former Georgian ambassador to Russia Zurab Abashidze said the conversation with Karasin had been "quite frank and quite critical," according to the New York Times.

He told the newspaper that most of the communication between the two countries was happening through churches.

"Right now, in principle, this is the only thread, the only channel, that connects the two countries and the two peoples, such church ties," said Abashidze.

Meanwhile, the Russian and Georgian Orthodox Churches agreed to continue dialogue on which of the two should have oversight of churches in Georgia.

Following Thursday's meeting with Patriarch Alexy, Metropolitan Gerasim said that South Ossetia and fellow breakaway region Abkhazia were canonical territories of the Georgian Patriarchate, according to InterFax news service.

"Georgian priests should serve there but regrettably, under the present circumstances they have no such opportunity," he said.

Gerasim added that the issue of which Church should oversee South Ossetia was extremely sensitive and complicated and "cannot be resolved overnight."

"We are satisfied with today's meeting," he noted. "We showed both Georgia and Russia that our Churches have not lost connections between them in the absence of diplomatic, political, economic or cultural ties between Georgia and Russia."